Years ago as a homeless veteran, Albert Guzman didn't need a handout. What Guzman really needed was job training and long-term support, which he eventually found through a hospital run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.
Now Guzman is one of several volunteers pitching in to open a center in downtown Perris that aims to teach veterans how to get government assistance and jobs.
The center, called the Southwest Veterans Business Resource Center, will be the fourth of its kind opened by a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 by Fallbrook businessman and 26-year Marine veteran Albert Renteria. Southwest Veterans has opened similar centers in Fallbrook, Spring Lake, N.C., and Vancouver, Wash.
On Friday a few volunteers worked feverishly to clean floors and carpets, hang whiteboards and start arranging the office furniture, all of which was donated by businesses from as far as San Diego and Irvine. The Perris City Council recently agreed to lease the space to the nonprofit for $1 a year.
Renteria described the centers as "one-stop shops" for veterans where they can learn how to apply for government jobs reserved for veterans and other programs.
The centers welcome any veterans in need, whether they are looking for shelter, psychiatric help or employment, Renteria said.
"We have to stop the tragedy of homeless veterans and the only way to do that is to give vets a place to go," Renteria said.
Renteria's strategy also includes talking to and engaging the community, because the public knows who veterans are and what they need, he said. He asks potential helpers to register on the organization's website, www.wherecommunitiesserveveterans.org, because the group relies on networking to find volunteers and equipment.
"When people start feeling sorry for a vet, they're not engaging him," Renteria said. "And the instinct and the discipline he has been trained with to serve and to work, you're destroying that instinct."
Guzman, a 54-year-old Menifee resident who weathered two homeless spells since serving in Vietnam, recalled how his first step to leaving the streets was committing to a daily task. He delivered mail at a Veterans Domiciliary Home in west Los Angeles.
"I got to wear a suit and clean shoes and in turn they gave me three meals a day. It gave me something to go do where I could get encouraged and not tore down," said Guzman, who like Renteria joined the Marine Corps at 17.
"You have to unlearn homelessness and relearn you can do this," said Guzman, who runs his own business making cabinets and is working toward his general contractor's license.
"You'd never believe I was homeless because I drive this car," Guzman said, pointing to a brand-new gray Corvette. "But I was. I didn't think there'd be a tomorrow. But I found it. I think I can help other veterans find it."
Guzman plans to teach other veterans about landing government contracts. Federal law sets aside 3 percent of federal contracts for businesses owned by disabled veterans. But only 20 percent of those contracts go to disabled veterans due to a lack of participation, Renteria said.
"Freedom has no value if it has no economy. We're saying to vets: 'You fought to defend freedom and capitalism,' " he said. "'If capitalism is why you served, why don't you become a capitalist?' "
Reach Julissa McKinnon at 951-375-3730 or jmckinnon@PE.com
WHAT: The Southwest Veterans Business Resource Center opens with a ceremony.
WHEN: 11 a.m. Tuesday
WHERE: 227 N. D St., Perris
DETAILS: Steve Muro, acting undersecretary overseeing memorial affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, will speak.